Tom Bewick has a professional background in education, skills and enterprise policy spanning two decades. He is owner and MD of a skills and management consultancy, New Work Training Ltd., which is dedicated to helping clients expand the number of apprenticeships. As a local councillor in Brighton & Hove, and chair of the local education authority, he is currently leading the city’s efforts to eliminate long-term youth unemployment.
He was an adviser to the Government, 1997-2004, on youth and adult education policy. He was co-founder and Chief executive of the creative and cultural industries skills council between 2004-2010; and co-founder and Chief executive of the International Skills Standards Organisation (INSSO) Ltd., 2010-2015, where he advised several multi-national corporations and overseas governments on global workforce development issues. He has written several influential publications and blogs at http://www.tombewick.com
Tom has been managing others for 15 years and has mainly taught himself how to lead people.
In one to three sentences, describe your leadership style when it comes to supporting others.
Hire the right people. Leave them alone to perform. Hold them to account when they don’t.
How has your style changed since you began leading and supporting others? Which techniques and approaches have you taken up, and which have you discarded?
I was more of a “control freak” when I first starting leading organisations. I soon realised however that the art of building high-trust, high-performing teams is to appropriately “let go”.
How would you define the purpose of supporting staff in their roles?
You have to be a coach, a social worker, lead by example, show authenticity at all times, but also constantly challenge staff to aspire and achieve more.
How do you set expectations?
Provide real clarity about “the what”; i.e. that vision of what success looks like. It means you then have to be less consumed by the detail, “the how”, which you should leave to your staff.
What approaches do you find particularly successful when managing or supporting others? Is there a difference between how you help teams or groups, and how you work with individuals?
Supporting teams, I find challenging groups to come up with co-produced solutions a good way of underpinning the right dynamic. For individuals you need to deploy a variety of techniques depending on their personality types. Some people like straight-talking; others want to feel they are being left alone. The trick is to balance these tensions in the interests of organisational cohesion.
In an ideal world, with fewer deadlines and meetings and other pressures, how would you like to bring out the best in your team?
As my career has developed, I’ve understood more and more the need to celebrate the success of teams at every turn, perhaps by doing some unusual things. I once took my start-up team of 8 for a long-weekend to Barcelona because we’d just won a major contract. Another time my PA was having a bad day, and I could see she was struggling a bit. I told her to just cancel my diary and hers; and we took off to Lord’s for the day to watch cricket! I think these “off-plan” things are what can make all the difference to motivating both individuals and a team. Sometimes it helps to share in everyday human experiences to understand what is going on at work.
Reflecting on Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, what opportunities are there for you “scaffold” growth and development amongst your teams? What challenges are there?
By definition, I think, when you are putting a team together, you are constructing a scaffold. You look to hire people with a mix of skills and attributes. These differences in turn challenge new thinking and ways of doing things. The opportunity to cross-fertilise these experiences is what will often drive innovation. The challenge comes in ensuring the “creative chaos” of the scaffolding approach is working towards some shared problem-solving approach. Otherwise you get anarchy.
Paolo Freire was a proponent of a co-designed approach to education. To what extend do you involve your team in the design of a project that they are working on? What are the benefits and limitations of this approach?
I think you can involve everyone in co-design up to a point. But equally, leaders have to know how to bring the right mix of people together with a specialised range of skills. For example, someone who doesn’t know how to write computer code or develop software would be lost in a discussion about the IT system architecture and wire frames. However, as a user of the software, they might have a unique user insight that challenges the way the developers go about their work. Apple are the best proponents of this approach. Users love the smart technology, but if the technology was clunky and lacked empathy with the user, people wouldn’t buy their products. Co-design and crowd-sourced solutions is a uniquely 21st century phenomenon thanks to the web.
Angela Duckworth has developed a system for tracking character strengths. In your opinion, how important are these strengths or soft skills? Do you have any approaches or processes for recognising them in your organisation? When is it useful, and when is it not?
The danger with these systems is that character traits are not easily categorised in terms of their link to high performance and productivity. In my career, I’ve met a variety of character strengths in one work context that would be considered weak in another. For example, in the artistic context, indecision of a particular character can sometimes lead to a better decision being made because other characters in the team blend with the issue and eventually resolve it. But in some management roles indecision—and therefore a weak character—can be fatal.
What is the link, if any, between well-supported teams and the impact that the organisation has?
The organisation is not separate from its people. If the people perform well the organisation will do well—simple as that. This concept is well understood in the sporting world. Look at the recent illegal emissions scandal of VW diesel cars. One rogue team has potentially the power to bring a whole corporation down because of its behaviour. The same happened during the financial crisis. I think CEOs who talk about the organisation as separate somehow from the people in it are deluding themselves.
How would you define ‘teacher’ or ‘educator’?
Language has become a real dividing line in our understanding of how to motivate, develop and reward people in the workplace. The moment managers and leaders start talking about themselves as “teachers” or “educators” then there is the danger they will actually start to alienate their team. After all, many peoples’ experience of school (and therefore education and teaching) is not always a happy one. I prefer the idea of a coach, borrowed from the sporting world, because it recognises that it is individuals and teams that deliver results. The coach’s job is to create the right conditions in which to make the results happen. Clearly, creating those conditions will at times mean stepping into the “educator” type role. The key thing is to teach in an almost unconscious way.
How would you define a ‘leader’?
That’s the point really. I don’t think you can define a ‘leader’. History shows they come in all shapes and sizes; as well as leaders being a product of their time. Everybody lauds Churchill as a leader during WWII. Yet, he lost the 1945 election to a landslide. Clearly people’s perceptions of him as a leader had changed. Likewise, we tend to look at leadership in terms of ‘heroic leaders’, or the single entrepreneur toiling away in their sheds. Again, history shows us that the best forms of leadership often come from broad based social movements, where there is often no recognised leader or figurehead at all. For example, the cause of equality in gay marriage in the West took decades of social change—and multiple leaders—to achieve its aims.